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The Opportunity of Congressional Primaries

By Babak Talebi, NIAC


NIAC Series: Reflections on Iranian-American Political Influence


Many Iranian Americans in states like California, Maryland, and Illinois feel that their votes will not matter in congressional districts that are dominated by one party or the other. However, reality is that even in the most solidly Democratic or Republican districts, Iranian Americans can have a huge impact by turning their focus to the primaries.


The Power of Incumbency


Among the 435 House elections held every two years, on average, only 5-10% are competitive during the general election. Over the past 20 years, less than 5% of the congressional races have resulted in party switches. Among the vast majority of seats that are barely contested, an overlooked method of getting candidates to be attentive to issues of concern to Iranian-American voters is the congressional primary elections.


Except in open-seats (where the incumbent retires), Congressional primaries attract few voters, often with only 5-15% of voters participating, thus providing a perfect opportunity for smaller voting blocks to wield disproportionate influence. In every election cycle, there are high-profile primary challenges that affect the behavior of elected officials, even when the challenger loses. The cases of Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2004 Republican primary in Pennsylvania and Sen. Joe Lieberman in the 2006 Democratic primary in Connecticut are two clear examples of the primary election having a direct impact on the politics of the incumbents.


In 2004, the moderate and pro-choice Senator Specter was almost defeated in the primary by a very conservative challenger, Pat Toomey (now the head of Club for Growth - a powerful fiscally conservative organization). As a result of this challenge and in order to hold on to his seat, this moderate Senator who had helped derail President Regan's Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, was compelled to move to the right and support President Bush's pro-life justices for the supreme court.


In 2006, Sen. Lieberman, a former Vice Presidential nominee from the Democratic Party actually lost a primary to cable executive Ned Lamont. Lamont and his liberal supporters literally forced Lieberman out of the Democratic Party mainly because of the Senator's unwavering support for the Iraq War. Though Lieberman eventually won the general election as an Independent, his reputation and political legacy have suffered due to that loss in the primary.


Though rare, some primary challengers do win as exemplified by Rep. Hank Johnson's defeat of Cynthia McKinney in Georgia's heavily Democratic Fourth district in 2006. The pro-Palestinian McKinney was held to 47% in the first round of voting and was forced into a run-off (Georgia law requires a 50% threshold) with Johnson who had received 44% of the vote. In the 20 days between the primary and the run-off, the challenger Johnson raised three times what McKinney raised and went on to defeat her 59% to 41% in an election that saw only 80,000 votes cast (less than 14% turnout).


With McKinney's defeat, a rare pro-Palestinian voice had been ousted from Congress through a primary upset.


The 2008 election cycle promises to highlight several key primary challenges where the local Iranian-American community can directly impact the races and compel candidates to be responsive to Iranian-American concerns.


Potentially Competitive Congressional Primaries in 2008


As of January 1, 2008, there are about 20 open House seats and 20-30 more races that are considered competitive. Aside from the likely primaries in most of those races, there are about a dozen primaries where incumbents are being challenged. Below is a list of three seats that are worthy of particular attention from the Iranian-American community. (To see all the 2008 House seats considered potentially competitive see here and here)


MD - 1 (R +10): This heavily Republican district covers all of the Eastern Shore as well as parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, and Hartford Counties. It is represented by 8-term Republican Wayne Gilchrest, a chair of the Congressional Dialogue Caucus and consistent opponent of war with Iran. He faces a very serious challenge from State Senator Andrew P. Harris. Harris, who has been endorsed by former MD Gov Ehrlich, the Club for Growth, and six of the district's seven Republican State Senators, is challenging Gilchrest as too liberal. Gilchrest has been one of only two Republicans to have voted with the Democrats for a troop withdrawal from Iraq and is a vociferous proponent of unconditional direct diplomacy with Iran. The Maryland Congressional Primary is on February 12th.


OH - 10 (PVI D +16): 5-term Democrat Dennis Kucinich, who is currently running for President, represents this Cleveland and Cuyahoga County based district. A staunch opponent of the Iraq war and supporter of diplomacy with Iran, he faces strong primary challenges from Dean DePiero (Mayor of Parma and former Minority leader in the Ohio House) and several others. The Ohio Congressional Primary is on March 4th.


MD - 4 (PVI D+30): This majority African American district covering most of Prince George County and parts of Montgomery County is represented by 8-term Democrat Al Wynn. Donna Edwards, who lost the 2006 primary by 2,725 votes out of 82,000 cast, is challenging him again this cycle. The Maryland Primary is on February 12th.


Another seat worth mentioning is the heavily Democratic suburban Chicago based IL-3 currently represented by conservative Democrat Dan Lipinski who is being challenged by several candidates in the February 5th Primary.


There are also several competitive Senate primary races including the New Mexico, Republican Primary and the Minnesota and Oregon Democratic Primaries with others potentially in Virginia, Alaska, South Carolina, Colorado and Idaho. These Senate races will be addressed in a future article.


(A full schedule of all presidential and congressional primary dates by state can be found here or here - pdf).


Babak Talebi is the Director of Community Relations at NIAC. This series has been produced with the generous support of PARSA Community Foundation.

... Payvand News - 01/16/08 ... --

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